I walked into my office on a Monday morning many years ago to a blinking red light.
After getting my coffee, I picked up the phone to retrieve a voice mail message, stamped at 5:27 the same morning.
"Bill, this is (I will call her Jane). My mother died at 5:10 this morning. I will be coming in at 9 o'clock to see you. Where's my money?"
Mom had been in a nursing home for several years before passing away peacefully at age 94.
At first, I was struck not by Jane's eagerness to get to my office (we had been dealing with her for years) as much as the realization that mine was the first call after learning that her mother died, before any of her siblings or family.
Jane arrived fifteen minutes early, waiting while my colleagues and I gathered in the conference room. I escorted her in, then had the distinct pleasure of informing her that her mother saw her for exactly who she was: An angry, vengeful, vindictive woman. And just as she thought (and lamented to us at every turn through the years), Jane was not included in her mother's estate.
And no, we did not say those exact words to her. We were professional and fulfilled our fiduciary duty, though believe me I wanted to dance a jig on the table after she left for the final time.
I think she snatched a few pens and mints on the way out.
Jane had two sisters, each of whom inherited some money. They were both nice people and expected nothing given Mom's advanced age.
Money doesn't change people, it just exposes them.
There are plenty of financial advisors who "get out the crystal ball" and try to predict which way the markets will go.
But it's also important to review, with your loved ones, your estate and financial plans. For me it's personal.
In the past year we have dealt with the death of both of my in-laws, one from cancer, the other from a stroke while suffering from dementia.
They were successful doctors who lived a comfortable lifestyle and did basic planning. Very basic, meaning my wife and her sister were left in many instances to make decisions based on what they thought their parents wanted.
I am often approached by prospective clients whose "investment problem" is first and foremost a planning problem requiring us to take a step back. In this sense quality financial advisors are like doctors, unable to make a full diagnosis without first examining the patient.
Investing without an effective estate and financial plan is akin to hunting while blindfolded. You might hit a few birds, but in our business what you get is never as important as what you get to keep. Taxes matter, planning matters.
Talk to your loved ones, but go beyond "where the documents are." Let them know your intentions about everything from end of life wishes to where your passwords and keys are kept.
I had a client years ago who was terminally ill with cancer. She was a traveler, often alone, and did so even as her one year life expectancy stretched past five years.
I remember her telling me about a trip to Israel during a period of intense conflict despite travel warnings. As she put it, "Who cares about a bomb when you only have six months to live?"
She lasted over six years, and the service, which she planned months in advance, was a fitting tribute.
Do your loved ones a favor with one final gift, the gift of familiarity, which will empower them.
And consider naming a corporate fiduciary to independently and objectively handle your affairs. We all have families, and what are families for if not to put the "fun" in dysfunction?
There are plenty of "Janes" in the world.
And plenty of people who, in the midst of a crisis, are exposed as one.